Are Putin’s days numbered? People power will be his undoing

By Ian Davis

28 February 2022

The military invasion launched last week by Vladimir Putin is an unprovoked, monstruous crime perpetrated against Ukraine’s citizens. It is also part of a broader and darker picture. The world appears on a downward descent into a lengthy international struggle for spheres of influence between so-called great powers, akin to Orwell’s three superpowers of 1984: for Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia, read emerging blocs led by the USA, China and Russia. These are indeed dark times, but as the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see”. What then, might this seemingly paradoxical darkness, allow us to see? 

First, I can see that I was mistaken about Putin. I thought that at worst, he was using coercive diplomacy to push back against NATO expansion, and that western governments and the media were being overly pessimistic. I also thought that diplomacy would prevail. I now readily acknowledge that I was wrong. The Russian leadership must be condemned for its illegal invasion of Ukraine that in addition being a tragedy for the Ukrainian and Russian people also threatens European and global security. It proved that Putin and his gang of cohorts were two-faced in their repeated declarations that the build-up of troops on Ukraine’s borders was solely to conduct military exercises and perhaps pressure the West into making concessions.

Second, the lies of the Russian leadership suggest that the mediation efforts of Western leaders such as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron had little chance of achieving results or were even misplaced. This may have been true, not least since concessions on key Russian demands, such as the future of NATO expansion, were never on the table. But the reality is that urgent diplomacy is what is needed now—not more military force—to bring about an immediate ceasefire, end the war and to discuss broader security issues. The failed and devastating wars conducted by our own governments in the post-Cold War era show that military force will not solve this crisis. Indeed, the second Iraq War and the ongoing bending of international law by some NATO member states to justify military intervention contributed to a weakening of the so-called ‘rules based international order’ that many Western leaders are now championing.

Third, nuclear disarmament and lower levels of military spending are essential parts of the future security equation. Ukraine was right to give up its nuclear weapons, and the veiled threat by Putin to use nuclear weapons shows that all states need to join the relevant treaties to reduce nuclear weapons risks, including the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. There have been widespread calls for NATO member states to increase their military spending, but military expenditure by NATO members totalled $1103 billion in 2020 (56% of the global total), compared to $61.7 billion by Russia. The United States and NATO are already equipped to contain any potential military threats to its member states and further arms racing would be counterproductive and destabilising. It is disappointing therefore that Germany has already buckled under the weight of alliance pressure and has announced a fund of 100 billion Euros to boost the strength of its armed forces, as well as a sustained increase in defence spending over the coming years. This money would be better spent on increasing German resilience to the energy crisis and supporting humanitarian needs in Ukraine and among neighbouring states that will have to cope with a growing refugee crisis. More than 368,000 people have already fled Ukraine while about 160,000 are internally displaced.

Fourth, it is the ‘rogue male’ Putin and his clique of Oligarchs and gangsters who are the adversaries here. Not all Russians. Albeit a difficult path to tread, the Western response must avoid retributive measures, such as a blanket visa ban, that would undermine longer-term goals of reconciliation with Russia, and the creation of an inclusive European security architecture that includes the Russian people. This is something many of Russia’s currently suppressed citizens would enthusiastically welcome. The spirit of triumphalism that followed the collapse of communism in eastern Europe in 1989-90, and the isolation and humiliation of Russia must not be repeated when Putin is eventually dethroned. A post-Putin, democratic Russia should be offered a seat at the table—alongside Ukraine—and a clear path to EU and NATO membership (with the aim of radically adapting NATO or merging it with the OSCE into a non-nuclear, pan-European security arrangement that abides by the UN Charter).

Although Putin has been sitting at the peak of the Russian pyramid of power for more than 20 years, the attack on a free Ukraine could be the beginning of the end for him. This is the final and most hopeful ray of light in the darkness. What Putin fears above all else is a Russian Euromaidan; a wave of demonstrations and civil unrest in Russia itself. Certainly, it will be the Russian people that will bring an end to the shaming and oppressive Putin era, not external military forces. The protesters in Russia are the very definition of courageous. Over 2,000 people have been detained in anti-war protests in Russia in the last three days, despite the huge barriers to protest and understandable pessimism among many young Russians.

It is often claimed that US values and military might won the Cold War; that the arms race led to the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union. However, an alternative and more convincing narrative describes how individuals, networks and groups in Eastern Europe laboured unwearyingly for four decades to corrode and finally overthrow, in the ‘velvet revolutions’ of 1989, their discredited governments. Similarly, non-violence and civil resistance, or ‘people power’, will be Putin’s undoing – and it could happen sooner than we think.

To accelerate political change in Russia we need to find ways to support civil society within Russia itself. The anti-war movement there needs to build links with anti-war movements in Europe and beyond. Sanctions need to be targeted on Russian individuals who are identified as actively engaged in supressing dissent, such as police chiefs (who are ordering arrests), judges (who are jailing dissidents) and heads of media organizations (that are distorting the truth about the Russian invasion). These individuals, as well as the wider Russian leadership, need to be identified and sanctioned, and evidence documented of their war crimes and other human rights violations for later prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

In a dark time, above all else, we need clarity and light about a better, sustainable and more equitable future for the whole of Europe.